The 747, flight attendants and the “60-foot rule”


A flurry of recent stories about United Airlines and Delta Air Lines retiring their fleets of Boeing 747 passenger planes focused on the role the widebody – dubbed the “Queen of the Skies” – played in aviation history and in the lives of passengers and crew members who have flown on the jumbo jet over the years.

Pan American World Airways introduced the aircraft into commercial service in January 1970 and, with it, a bevy of firsts for commercial passenger planes, including twin aisles, a set of stairs leading to an upper deck, lounges where passengers could gather during the flight, and the unusual and now-iconic hump on the top of the plane.

An important side-story from 747 history is how opposition to a 1984 plan by Boeing to decrease the number of emergency evacuation exits on the aircraft led to an important worldwide safety standard for all airplanes that is known as the “60-foot rule.”

The “60-foot rule” is 14 CFR 25.807(f)(4), “For an airplane that is required to have more than one passenger emergency exit for each side of the fuselage, no passenger emergency exit shall be more than 60 feet from any adjacent passenger emergency exit on the same side of the same deck of the fuselage, as measured parallel to the airplane’s longitudinal axis between the nearest exit edges.”- Federal Aviation Administration

Runway Girl Network spoke with Sara Nelson, a United Airlines flights attendant and International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, about the role unions representing pilots and flight attendants had in fighting for the establishment of the 60-foot rule and its meaning for passenger safety.

“In 1984, Boeing approached the Federal Aviation Administration and asked it to approve a request to remove two emergency evacuation exits from the over wing exits,” said Nelson.

Removing those doors would have allowed Boeing to add more seats on the popular jumbo jet, but both pilots and flight attendants raised concerns to the FAA. They believed that loss of those doors would compromise passenger safety.

“It was a structural issue of not having enough exits located close enough to where passengers were seated to be able to get them up to an exit and out the door in time,” said Nelson, “We pushed back against Boeing’s request and provided data that showed [removing the doors] would create a problem for getting everyone off the aircraft in 90 seconds,” – the time-limit in which airline manufacturers must prove to the FAA that an aircraft can be fully evacuated.

In June 1985 the unions provided expert testimony to the Public Works and Transportation Committee and, ultimately, the FAA did not allow the removal of the exits.

“We continued to prod the FAA,” said Nelson, “And in 1988 they put in place a new rule of exits being no more than 60 feet apart.”

A 1988 New York Times story about the ruling noted that foreign carriers operating 747s would not have been required to honor the FAA’s 60-foot rule, but that “Foreign authorities commonly follow the agency’s lead in operation of American-built planes” and that pressure to adopt the same ruling was likely to arise in countries outside the United States.

Boeing objected to the ruling, but ultimately, the 60-foot rule became a requirement for every aircraft that flies around the world.

Nelson credits flight attendants, especially, with making the rule a reality.

“No one knows the aircraft cabin better than flight attendants. We are certified safety professionals and the government requires us to be on board specifically to be able to evacuate passengers in the required 90 seconds,” said Nelson, “We are the experts on the subject and we were the ones to speak up because this is the at the center of what we do.”

A Boeing historian, through the airframer’s PR, did not recollect the events which transpired around the “60-foot rule”.

Photo at top credited to Boeing

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  1. Raoul

    I was just on an MD-90 last night. A fine aircraft, but I imagine that from the boarding door aft edge to the first overwing exit leading edge must be within bare inches of 60 feet. I’m glad a longer section isn’t allowed!

  2. I don’t know why Boeing couldn’t install more powerful fuel efficient engines on the 747 aircraft and up-to-date avionics packages on new airframes and continue the production of the greatest airliner to date. I’m almost sure the general public that flies overseas would greatly enjoy seeing their favorite aircraft continue to serve the overseas travelers on long haul flights. I’ve traveled many flights to Asia over a 40 year span and of all the aircraft I’ve flown on the 747 was the most comfortable and passenger friendly of them all.

    • S Fariz

      David, they did install more powerful fuel efficient engines and up-to-date avionics on the 747 – it’s known as the 747-8. As you can see, sales of the passenger version wasn’t encouraging at all.

      The market for a large 4-engined widebody jet is now dead. Pretty soon, the A380 will be joining the 747

  3. Sunny Roberto

    The 747 is the most beautiful thing that has ever happened in aircraft making. i have been opportuned to have flown in that master piece for more than 50 times. flying in the upper deck,was something that gave me a sense of funfilment. there can never be anything close to the 747, no matter how much others might try. they say old soldier never die, they just retire to fight another day. I’m convinced the queen of the skies, will come back, good things don’t get lost.

  4. Lisa

    It proves that when people speak up in numbers positive changes can happen. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for those flight attendants to speak out on this issue at that time their jobs were on the line. I personally loved the 747 and I hate to see it go it was an excellent airplane design. As far as the Boeing historians not remembering this happening back in the seventies I REMEMBER IT!!! Also remember I was amazed that they listened to women back then because that didn’t happen very often ,I think it helped a lot that the pilots joined in.
    Goodbye Boeing 747 unfortunately will never see that Comfort again where squeezed in like sardines with no knee room and charged for every little amenity.
    Next thing you know will be charged for the oxygen recirculation.LOL

  5. frederic

    British Airways flew the B747.200 with only 4 operable doors each side. The overwing door was deactivated.
    I watched a program about safet.on the BBC quite a few years ago. University research showed that the chance of surviving in a crash diminishes when you are 7 or more rows from an exit.